BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Alabama voters once again have the chance to remove the racist language of Jim Crow from the state’s constitution, which was approved in 1901 to enshrine white supremacy as state law.
Courts have long since struck down legalized segregation, but past attempts to strip the offensive phrases have failed. Even though no organized opposition to the measure has emerged this time, some worry that conservative backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement could quash the proposal, which qualified for the ballot months before the nationwide demonstrations that occurred in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
A measure on the Nov. 3 ballot would allow the state to recompile its 119-year-old constitution in a process supporters say would remove a lingering stain from the state’s era of racial segregation and the legalized oppression of Black people.
“What we are trying to do with this small measure is to bring the Alabama Constitution into the 21st century and be more reflective of who we are as a state now,” said Rep. Merika Coleman, one of the sponsors of the bipartisan legislation.
An amendment would clear the way for excising language from the constitution that bans mixed-race marriages, allows poll taxes, and mandates school segregation. It would also remove duplicate sections from the heavily amended document and put related items all in one section.
While eradicating overt racism might seem like a logical move in 2020, approval isn’t a given: Voters in the majority white, conservative state have rejected similar proposals twice since 2000.
In 2004, conservatives helped kill a move to clean up the constitution by arguing the move could lead to increases in school taxes. Eight years later, education groups and others opposed a similar measure because it retained segregation-era language that denied the constitutional right to education in Alabama.
Supporters of the measure are being careful with how they present the issue this year.
Called Amendment 4, the proposal as written on statewide ballots does not even mention race. It just says the amendment would let the Legislature “recompile the Alabama Constitution and submit it during the 2022 Regular Session, and provide a process for its ratification by the voters ....”
Supporters are encouraged because no organized opposition has emerged just days ahead of the vote. But they are also wary that conservatives who dominate the state electorate could oppose the amendment if they perceive it as being tied to anti-racism protests.
“It’s possible that the backlash will rear its head and people will vote against it,” said Nancy Ekberg, a director of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, a nonprofit that has been pushing for a rewrite for 20 years.
Coleman said there was no connection between the amendment and nationwide protests against racial injustice.
“I don’t understand how anyone would conflate the two issues when we passed the measure in 2019 and it was completely bipartisan,” she said.
The racial justice movement and remnants of racism are tied to measures in some other states. Voters in neighboring Mississippi will decide on a replacement for the Confederate-themed state flag, and Rhode Island voters will decide whether to remove a reference to plantations from the state’s official name.
In Alabama, history shows there’s reason for supporters of the amendment to worry.
Two decades ago, Alabama voters voted to repeal an unenforceable section of the constitution that made it illegal for Black and white people to marry. About 40% voted against the change, and the amendment either passed narrowly or lost in many rural, mostly white counties.
If voters OK a reworking this year, a final version of the document would still have to be approved by lawmakers and in another statewide vote in 2022.
Republican Gov. Kay Ivey has not taken an official position on the anti-racist measure or any of the five other statewide amendments on the ballot, but she does not oppose any of them, said spokeswoman Gina Maiola.
The 1901 constitution was written to establish a “rigid apartheid” in Alabama, and the white men who wrote it were successful in disenfranchising Black people and poor white people for generations, said historian Wayne Flynt. Large numbers of Black people did not register to vote until after the civil rights gains of the 1960s.
Flynt said someone — including a state competing for an economic development project — could use the remaining racist language in the constitution to argue that “nothing in Alabama has changed.”
“This referendum and the referendum in ’22 will be a way of opening up the soul of Alabama and see what it looks like on the inside,” Flynt said.
Chandler reported from Montgomery, Alabama.